Last week Nature magazine published findings about a red dwarf sun – Trappist-1- that has seven Earth like planets orbiting it. This is nothing less than a major step forward in answering the question about whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Cosmos.
It is hard to imagine a more widely wondered question than the one about life elsewhere than earth. The vast majority of people I have met in my lifetime have had this question put to them at least once. It is perhaps the most widely shared question our species has.
As the vastness of Space has become ever more known in my lifetime I have found this question to have an obvious answer: of course there is intelligent life elsewhere! Given this vastness how could there not be some sort of life with intelligence elsewhere. It is practically a statistical certainty.
Just because humanity hasn’t yet found another life form doesn’t mean there might not be one. I find it one of the highest forms of anthropocentric thinking, that humans might be the only intelligent life form in the Cosmos. On top of that almost statistical certainty of intelligent life elsewhere, the other idea that life can only be defined by how it exists on Earth is an Earth-centric view of the great unknown. There might be life forms or an essence of consciousness that can exist in different environments
It is understandable that our search for life elsewhere starts with the assumption that it must reside on a earth similar planet. So we look to find planets that are similar to ours. The discovery of Trappist-1 and its seven planets is perhaps the biggest step to discovering life elsewhere in my lifetime.
So where was the coverage of this incredible discovery in media around the world?
Marshall McLuhan famously said:
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication”
“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values”
So we live within mass media, within mainstream media, and both greatly infuse our consciousness. We have shown what we want and they deliver.
So I just searched Google for mentions of Trappist-1 and some other news stories in the last week:
Trappist-1 1.1 million results
Trump 94.4 million
The Academy Awards 60.3 million
Spring Training 8.2
Kim Kardasian 10.3
College basketball 58.6
We live in an attention economy and have for years. I have longed experienced the axiom that “what one puts one’s attention on, expands in one’s life”. The list above shows what we put our attention on.
This of course brings into question why we consider humanity the highest form of intelligent life there is. We put our attention on distractions, or what the media has decided we want, on things that we are interested in as suggested by friends and advertisers.
Marx famously said “Religion is the opium of the people” . Most of my life I have paraphrased that to say “Sports and religion are the opium of the masses”. The above numbers suggest that right now in these times the statement is “Sports, religion, celebrities and politics are the opium of the masses”
What if all the energy, attention, and obsession give to sports had, over the past 100 years, been given to world peace or in the last 40 years to climate change? We clearly would be much further along in both areas. Naïve I know but worth reflection. Particularly in a time of great transformation and creative destruction that seems to worry us, might it not be better to be a bit more attentive to things that might answer the biggest questions we have been asking for centuries.
Recently I was invited to speak to scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in MD about “This Spaceship Earth”. To address some of the smartest earth scientists in the world was a great honor. While there, I was shown the James Webb Telescope, the successor to the Hubble. The Hubble is 250,000 miles from Earth and has provided incredible information about the Universe. The James Webb Telescope will be 1,000,0000 miles from Earth and will obviously dramatically expand our knowledge of the Cosmos. It will be launched in 2018. In the years thereafter it will be sending data streams to us here on Earth that will may well answer the question about life elsewhere, about the origins of the Cosmos and other concepts perhaps yet to be considered by humanity.
When that happens, I hope we take our attention away from basketball games, baseball games, politicians and celebrities who shine brightly in the moment so that we can open our minds to thinking about our place in the largest scheme of things. It will give us perspective on how to better create stewardship of Spaceship Earth.
We will certainly make contact with another intelligence from somewhere in the Universe sometime in the future. Until then we must show our intelligence by doing what it takes to provide stewardship to Earth. What a tragedy it would be to destroy our civilization before that happens. We could not stand the test of being considered intelligent by other life forms from elsewhere if we willfully and knowingly created an extinction event on our planetary home. We are doing so now, but have yet to summon the will to make all the necessary changes to how our species lives. However, the awareness and understanding about the needed changes to slow this extinction event is increasing every day as ever more people put their attention on the causes and effects of Climate Change.
What will you put your attention on today, tomorrow, next week?